Get More Closet Space

If you ask homeowners what they like or dislike most about their houses, there’s a good chance the answer will include strong opinions about closets. This once-overlooked storage feature has taken on a starring role in modern homes.

Closets haven’t always been so important because we haven’t always had so much stuff. Closets weren’t even standard features in all homes until about the turn of the 20th century. Before then, most people stored clothing and food in furniture such as armoires, hutches and trunks.

Most early closets were no larger than 8 sq. ft. They grew bigger in the ranch-style designs that were popular after World War II, but they featured just a single shelf and hanging rod. Except for a few changes in door styles, closets stayed basically the same for the next 40 years.

Open a modern closet, however, and you’ll see the biggest development since the invention of sliding doors: customized storage systems. Thanks to our penchant for possessions, devising ways to maximize storage capacity has grown into a $2 billion industry. When you consider the benefits, it’s no wonder these systems continue to gain popularity.

The most obvious purpose a closet system serves is to hold your belongings. It will almost certainly increase the capacity of a closet — replacing a single hanging rod and shelf with multiple hanging rods, shelves and drawers makes more efficient use of the space so you can fit more inside.

In addition, a well-organized system offers secondary benefits. When items are easier to find, you’ll have less stress and save time (a big plus when you’re getting ready in the morning). You may even expand your wardrobe: Most people wear only about 20 percent of their clothes because the rest are less accessible. I can attest to this because I recently emptied my master-bedroom closet before installing a couple of built-in cabinets (see “Old-School Closet System,” below). I couldn’t believe how many forgotten possessions I discovered — clothes that my wife and I wanted to wear again as well as items to give away and dispose of.

One of the best features of many closet systems is how easy they are to modify. For example, the components used to create this closet design for kids will be easy to rearrange as the child grows and storage needs change.

If those reasons aren’t enough to get organized, consider the potential financial benefits. When it’s time to sell your home, a closet system is an appealing feature that many buyers will appreciate and some have even come to expect.

DIY or pro
No matter what your décor and budget, you can find a system that will enhance your closet. A basic DIY system with a couple of hanger bars and shelves costs as little as $25, or you can spend tens of thousands for a custom-designed, professionally installed cabinet system that will turn your closet into a suite that rivals the finest clothing boutiques.

The price depends on the size of the system, the type of materials and accessories and any design or installation assistance you require. A good-quality DIY wire-shelf system that is designed to fill a 6-ft.-wide reach-in closet and features roughly 10 ft. of hanging bar and 20 ft. of shelving will cost $100 to $200. A better-quality DIY laminated-panel system with similar hanging bar and shelving capacities but that also includes four drawers will cost $500 to $1,000. And a similar professionally installed laminated-panel system will cost at least twice that amount.

Although DIY systems are more cost-effective, there are a few reasons you might consider hiring a professional designer, organizer or installation service. First, a designer has the experience to devise creative solutions you might not think of. Second, professional services often provide more custom-fit installations and sometimes offer specialized components that you can’t buy off-the-shelf. And third, they do all of the installation work for you.

With the exception of having a designer visit your home, the difference between the professional systems and DIY versions is not as great as it once was. A few years ago, professionally installed systems were made of higher-quality materials, but that’s not necessarily the case today. Of course, there is a huge difference between the materials and components used for inexpensive metal DIY systems and the professionally designed and installed laminated-panel systems. But the best laminate-panel DIY systems are now comparable to most professionally installed systems.

In addition, professional design services are becoming less enticing for budget-conscious consumers because many manufacturers offer free design assistance through interactive online programs. For example, EasyClosets’ proprietary design tool lets you input your closet’s shape and exact dimensions and then suggests a plan that you can modify. When you are satisfied with the design, you submit the order and EasyClosets ships the necessary hardware and parts. If you want more personal assistance, many manufacturers also offer various levels of professional help ranging from e-mail or telephone consultations to complete in-home design and installation services.

If you choose the DIY route, the first step is to consider the space and determine the style of system you want to install. Select a style that suits your taste as well as the application. In a master-bedroom closet that you’ll use every day, it may make sense to install a laminate-panel system that complements the room, is made of more durable components and features a variety of useful accessories. But a spare-bedroom closet that is rarely opened might be just as well-served by a less expensive wire system with fewer accessories.

Next, consider the type of closet or room. Reach-in closets need only one wall of components, but the layout requires a few special considerations. Sliding doors limit access to the middle of a reach-in closet. Avoid locating drawers or other pullout accessories behind the door overlap. The same front-access limitations can be a problem for reach-in closets with deep side recesses; you may be limited to hanging storage in the recesses. If recesses are deeper than 18 in., consider widening the door opening and installing wider doors. Another option that requires a more woodworking skills is to install built-in cabinets in the recesses.

Walk-in closets can benefit from multiple walls of components, and large ones may include an island. Pay special attention to the components you locate near the corners. Avoid installing drawers or cabinet doors that will interfere with the operation of or access to components on the adjacent wall.

Also consider the components that will work best with the items that you are storing. For example, hanger bars are important if you’re storing clothing, but they’ll have little use in a food-storage pantry.

The best sources for ideas and inspiration are manufacturers’ brochures and Web sites. These resources are filled with different storage scenarios and configurations you can adapt to suit your needs.

Most DIY-system installations are fairly simple, requiring just a tape measure, level, stud finder and drill/driver. Some may also require screwdrivers, a hammer, a hacksaw, a jigsaw or a circular saw.

Installing a system typically involves securing some form of track or railing to the wall. The track acts as the primary support for the other components. Some wire systems use wall-mounted brackets and support poles, but the railing or track systems are easier to install and provide greater strength and flexibility for customization. In addition, laminated systems require assembling the other components, which typically involves driving a few screws and securing cam fittings in predrilled holes.

Considering how inexpensive and easy-to-install today’s DIY closet systems can be, this is a project that virtually any homeowner would find rewarding. Check out the variety of available styles and accessories that handle just about any storage need and you’ll be inspired to start your spring cleaning — just in time to stow the boots and mittens and unearth your flip-flops, tube tops and other forgotten treasures.

Installing a Closet System

Support Track: Level the track and anchor it to the wall at each end and within 6 in. of each standard or vertical-panel location. Drive fasteners into studs or masonry for maximum strength. Use wood screws to secure to studs, masonry anchors to secure to a masonry wall and toggle bolts when the fastener location does not fall over a stud.

Laminated Systems: Hang the vertical side panels on the track. The track supports short panels and keeps full-length panels from tipping forward.

Other Components: The other components such as shelves, drawers and hanger bars are assembled and attached to the vertical side panels with screws, dowel pins or cam fittings.

Wire Systems: Hang each standard on the track and anchor it to the wall with at least one screw located near the center of the standard. The standards support the other closet components such as shelves, hanger bars and baskets.

Design Tips
Use these pointers to make the most of your closet space:

  • Store items at accessible heights. For example, you’ll do a lot less stooping if you position a hanger bar at the bottom of the closet system (so the clothes hang just above the floor) and position smaller items such as shoes in the middle or top.
  • The typical height of a single hanger bar (for long clothes) is 72 in. Double bars should be positioned at heights of 42 and 84 in.
  • Organize for your lifestyle - put the items you use the most in the most accessible location. For example, if you rarely wear dress clothes, consider moving them to a different closet and reserving your bedroom closet for the garments your wear on a daily basis.
  • Rotate seasonal clothing. Store winter clothes in tubs during the summer.
  • Get rid of anything you don’t wear or use anymore — you might as well give these items to someone who needs them.

Not Just for Closets
Just because they’re called closet systems doesn’t mean that they have hide behind closed doors. Most systems require only one wall for mounting, so they work well in laundry rooms, mud rooms, home offices or garages. And laminate-panel systems often feature trim moldings that give them the finished appearance of built-in cabinetry. With a little creativity, you can use these systems to establish a tidy, well-organized look throughout your house.

Old-School Closet System
Not every closet is a perfect fit for an organizer system. The master-bedroom closet in my 1960s ranch house had a white laminate-panel system, and I got fed up with trying to reach back into the shelves and hangers that were tucked into the 22-in.-deep side recesses. Rather than attempt to reconfigure the closet system or widen the door opening, I chose to make a couple of matching built-ins for each side of the closet. After all, built-ins are the original storage-organizer systems.

I first drilled a couple of exploratory holes from inside the closet to determine the location of the studs that came closest to lining up with the closet side walls. Then I removed the old casing and cut away the plaster wall covering - a huge mess that is nearly impossible to contain. I removed the studs between the closet walls and the door framing and left the sole plate in place. Closet walls are typically not load-bearing, but be sure to check your wall before removing any framing. If the wall is load-bearing, you must add headers above the new openings.

Next, I measured the rough opening and designed cabinets that would just fit through it. I built and finished the cabinets in the shop to match the closet doors.

Building the cabinets off-site made installation easy. I fastened a low platform to the closet floor and sole plate to act as a level base and then slid each cabinet into the opening and attached it to the closet framing.

I trimmed around the new cabinets and closet doors by combining the old inside and outside closet-door casings and covered the gap between the door jamb and the cabinet with a piece of 1/4-in.-thick oak, like a mull cover - the trim piece that covers the gap between adjacent windows. The result is a set of matching built-ins that look like they came with the house.